Cadet Thomas Avolio's sister and father pin on his 2nd Lieutenant bars in a ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Des Moines cadet fights back to regain dream
After Cadet Thomas Avolio's tragic accident in 2006, he was not expected to live, much less return to the Air Force Academy.
Laying in a coma in a Colorado hospital in intensive care, Avolio's body was in shambles and his life was hanging in the balance.
On Dec. 16th, 2009, a truly inspiring day, 2nd Lieutenant Avolio finished a five-and-a-half year journey and graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
"It was the climax of his journey," his mother, Barb Avolio, said.
Avolio grew up in Des Moines, attending St. Philomena Catholic School and Kennedy Catholic High School.
His two oldest friends, essentially since birth, Peter Livingston and Thatcher Kelley, grew up alongside him in Des Moines in the same cul-de-sac. All three still keep in close contact.
"Thomas is the type of guy that you would want your sister to marry, just a great guy through and through," said Livingston.
"When we were kids, Thomas loved playing with his toy fighter jets. It was inspiring to see him push through so much difficulty in order to serve our country as he has always desired," said Kelley.
Avolio's parents, Vic and Barb Avolio, taught all of their children values-- to believe in God, family, country and to have a good work ethic.
It is a natural outcome that Avolio would follow his dream of attending the Air Force Academy and serving his country.
"I first wanted to fly and went to the Academy for that reason," said Avolio.
While at Kennedy Catholic, he was nominated to the academy by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Adam Smith.
"Then I found out that I was color deficient. I still wanted to serve regardless of the way I was doing it," said Avolio.
During his sophomore year, Thomas and two other cadets were hiking on Eagles Peak, which looms in the background of the academy.
They had decided to go a different way, scrambling between rocks-- a path that turned out to be more dangerous.
"The last thing I remember about five minutes before I fell is waving to hikers," said Avolio. "Those were the first hikers that helped...that helped save my life."
Avolio had fallen down the side of the Colorado mountain some 200 feet. His injuries were so severe that his family was called to try to make it to his bedside before he died.
He had suffered severe traumatic brain injury, a fractured skull, a broken wrist, a broken ankle, a damaged optic nerve in his left eye, and cuts and bruises all over his body.
"The best prognosis of the EMTs at the time was permanent coma, or worse, death," said long time family friend, Dave Kelley.
According to Barb Avolio, Academy Superintendent Lt. General John F. Regni arranged for a Blackhawk helicopter to remove Avolio from the treacherous ledge where he was precariously situated.
The three-star general said that his wife played a key role by insisting that he call the Pentagon.
The Colorado National Guard was not available, so he called Wyoming National Guard. A Wyoming crew had just taken off on a training/practice run which turned into a real rescue operation.
The journey was a long one of feeding tubes, respirators, and memory problems. All the while tens of thousands of people at home and across the country were praying for Avolio and blogging their well wishes.
"The blog let us know there were huge numbers of people praying and supporting us," said Barb Avolio. "The USAFA has a very strong network in this regard.
"We would not have been in this situation if it hadn't been for the prayers and support of all those people. It was the guy upstairs that did it...there's no question in my mind," said father Vic Avolio.
"Three things that are clear," said Dave Kelly, father of Thatcher Kelly, "God wants Thomas alive, God wanted Thomas to graduate from USAFA, and God is not done with Thomas yet."
Avolio was absent from the academy for twenty months.
"The first thing I remember post-accident is that I wanted to get back in the academy," said Avolio.
"The most extensive part was the first two months...I had physical, occupational, psychological and speech therapy. I was an outpatient at the Seattle VA.... for 4 to 5 months," explained Avolio.
The next step was to get back in the flow of normal life.
"I went to school at the University of Washington. This was key in my recovery ...for my mind to get back in shape and to be stimulated," said Avolio. "I figured the girl/guy ratio is 60/40 at the UW with 25,000 girls. At the academy we have 4,400 students and 600 of those are women," said Avolio jokingly.
Avolio constantly studied while at the UW and he made sure his credits were transferable to the academy.
"My goal was still in sight," said Avolio.
In his first attempt to get back to the academy he was denied re-entry due to optic nerve damage.
"The optic nerve fixed itself two weeks after the first evaluation," reported Avolio. "My eye got better."
In January 2008 Thomas was granted re-entry to the academy.
"Even though he's easygoing -- he's a fighter. He played the cards he was dealt and kept going forward," said mother Barb Avolio.
Avolio's graduation was triumphant for all who attended.
"It was a great honor to be at Thomas' graduation and commissioning," said Dave Kelley.
Many were there to witness and participate in the ceremony, including some of the EMT's who took part in his rescue.
Now retired Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. John F. Regni was there, as well Lieutenant Colonel David Murphy, his Air Force commander, who flew from Andrews Air Force Base to commission Avolio.
When asked about the future, Avolio said, "I am going into Air Force intelligence. My first assignment is at Good Fellows Air Force base in San Angelo, Texas. I will be going to school and training to be an intelligence officer."